Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi is reportedly considering a tour in the Middle East in this month, across the opposing camps of the region. The expected itinerary, still under the consideration and partially reported, includes Iran and Israel, amid the undeclared but alleged “shadow war” between two countries at the sea.

Foreign Minister Motegi’s visit also includes Egypt on the one hand and Turkey and Qatar on the other. Jordan and the West Bank are also included in the planned visit, since peace and prosperity for the Palestine people is still high on the agenda of Japan’s Middle East diplomacy.

The Middle East is full of unseen fissures and boundaries. Japan, as an outsider from the crisscrossing conflicts without having any colonial past in the Middle East, dares to overstep the dividing line every now and then talking to both sides of the confrontation.

Japan’s desire to be an honest peace mediator in the Middle East often push it to the middle of the crossfire. At the time of the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s high-profile visit to Iran and the meetings with the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the then President Rouhani in June 2019 coincided with mysterious attacks to tankers on June 13, including one owned by a Japanese company, navigating off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula at the Gulf of Oman. The spectacular video-footage of the Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous spewing black smoke on the day when Japanese Prime Minister was meeting with the Supreme Leader has clearly shown how it is difficult to place itself as a neutral intermediary in the Middle East.

This time, right before the inception of the intended trip by Japanese Foreign Minister to the Gulf, a Japanese-owned ship named Mercer Street was hit by a drone attack on July 29 in the Gulf of Oman again, which killed two crews. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is accused by the western countries to have perpetrated this attack but denied so far.

The ship is operated by a U.K. company Zodiac Maritime which turned out to be owned by an Israeli business tycoon Eyal Ofer, who, in the past, was known to have business operations with Iran despite the strong call by Israeli government to impose sanctions on Iran. Japanese are again impressed by the complexity of Middle Eastern politics and society.

All may have been just a coincidental series of unfortunate events under the circumstances of longstanding disagreements and confrontations, but many in Japan will see a deliberate act of sabotage of any outside effort of mediation.

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